As a landmark exhibition in Beijing puts digital art centre stage, Jason Farago assesses the internet’s impact on the art world.

“Is the internet dead?” It seems at first like an absurd question, especially since you are reading these words on a computer or mobile screen. How could an apparatus on which we are all more dependent by the day be dead? Isn’t the internet bigger than ever?

But for the Berlin-based artist Hito Steyerl, who posed that question in a recent essay for the arts website e-flux, the very ubiquity of the internet means that it no longer has any coherence. It might, in fact, no longer exist at all. “The internet persists offline as a mode of life, surveillance, production and organization,” Steyerl argues. It infects everything from personal identities and romantic relationships to political debates and public advocacy. “It is undead and it’s everywhere,” the artist writes: the internet, having seeped into every pore of society, seems increasingly hard to pin down. So hard to pin down, in fact, that it might be nowhere at all.

Steyerl is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and she’s also one of more than three dozen artists featured in a new exhibition, Art Post-Internet, that opened in March at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. The latter show is a major event, and not only because it introduces so many artists from the United States and Europe to China for the first time. Digital art, long sidelined in the discourse of contemporary art, is now taking centre stage – and not in the way anyone presupposed. 

Double meanings

The phrase ‘post-internet art’ has to be understood in two ways. On the one hand, post-internet art is simply art made after a moment of internet art: an early, slightly naive tendency that began in the 1990s. Internet art of those days often evaded galleries and museums and appeared primarily, even solely, on the world wide web or other internet protocols. Though it attracted some attention from museums (the Whitney Museum in New York, for example, collected a few internet works), it never really jumped the boundary from experimental practice to mainstream visibility. Post-internet art, in this simple sense, builds on those earlier experiments, taking into account new factors like social media, mobile technology or surveillance.

Yet post-internet art is also, as Steyerl suggests, something bigger than a second-generation response to digital technology. Instead of using the internet as a medium, it takes the internet as a given, even unremarkable fact of life – and goes from there. In the work of New York-based Tyler Coburn, for example, the internet seeps beyond the notorious “series of tubes” into the most intimate parts of our lives. In his project I’m That Angel, which takes the form of a performance and a book (a printed book!), Coburn tells the story of a content-farm journalist who grinds out stories that chase trending topics on Google or social media and slowly loses his sense of self amid a constant barrage of digital noise. In Beijing he is presenting a new work that uses an audio track featuring Susan Bennett – an actor best known for giving voice to the iPhone technology known as Siri. Coburn is not uninterested in digital technology; far from it. Rather, he recognises that the changes wrought by digital technology are just one component in an overlapping sequence of economic, social and psychological transformations.

Ghost in the machine

In bringing together so many disparate practices, the Beijing exhibition makes it clear that contemporary art that responds to digital questions has no single look or message. It also has another virtue – it brings into a museum artworks that, too often, remain outside the mainstream of contemporary art.

Artists working in digital terrain, as in so many other corners of the internet, can get defensive if not downright nasty when it is pointed out, but there’s no denying it: the influence of new media artists has, until now, been very limited. Claire Bishop, an art historian at the Graduate Center in New York, delivered the bad news in an article called Digital Divide, published in 2012 and endlessly debated since. In the ‘90s, when the world wide web came into being and email became ubiquitous, Bishop expected the art world to be transformed. Largely, this didn’t happen. “Whatever happened to digital art?” Bishop asked. The answer she came up with was that the really important shift in contemporary art of the last 20 years was not towards the digital but away from it. Noting the recent popularity of real-life interactions in galleries, the huge rise in performance art and the high esteem given to obsolescent media like film and slide projectors, she concluded that the art world generally responds to the upheavals of digital technology by disavowing that they are taking place.

Bishop’s essay set off a wave of responses, many from artists who felt their own work was being minimised. But as Steyerl herself observed in an interview, Bishop was absolutely right to state that the central organs of the art world – museums, biennials and fairs – have shown little interest in digital culture and often privilege analogue forms that either easily slot into art history or retain obvious financial value in the market. (Steyerl, for one, joked, “Next time I see another 16mm film projector rattling away in a gallery I will personally kidnap it and take the poor thing to a pensioners home.”) Art Post-Internet, then, represents an important step forward in reckoning with the relevance of digital practices inside museums.

The real virtue of post-internet art is not that it breaks down the distinction between digital and analogue forms. This seems self-evident in a moment when so many painters use Photoshop and sculptors use CAD software. More importantly, it reveals that the internet is not a magical innovation divorced from all that came before; it is a fundamental component of life, for better and indeed for worse.

As the writer Evgeny Morozov has recently insisted, the internet – or “the Internet,” as he prefers, always using scare quotes – does not exist in any coherent sense. What does exist is technology, and technology is not ideology-free. The art we call post-internet is at its best when it recognises that the internet itself, for all its innovations, is not the big story of our times. It is the stuff around and inside the internet – the economic disruptions, the political revolutions, the ecological perils and the psychological turmoil – that really matter. The rest is just pixels on a screen.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Around the BBC